Saturday, May 23, 2009

In the Watery Wake of Early Discoverers: Paddling the Lewis & Clark Columbia River Water Trail

The bow of our yellow kayak slides through the water, small waves gently slap its sides. Nineteen feet long, sleek yet stable, our tandem kayak easily holds food and gear for several days of touring. My paddling partner husband and I wanted to view the Columbia River along the trail of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery, 200 years after they had paddled the same waters.

Dams, cities, highways, rail roads and the near eradication of native people along the shore line are obviously the most pronounced changes in 200 years. The journals of the discoverers allow us to know some of what the river looked like during their exploration of the Columbia. We can only imagine what the men of the Corps of Discovery would have thought of the river today.

Our four early summer days on the Lower Columbia Lewis and Clark River Trail begins at the Hamilton Island boat ramp, past the foaming turbulence below Bonneville Dam. Two hundred years ago, when Lewis and Clark passed by what was then the tail end of Cascade Rapids, native fishers speared salmon, precariously reaching over the foaming spray from platforms. Lewis and Clark dubbed the area Strawberry Island. Hamilton Island boat ramp is on a flat piece of land, no longer an island. During the construction of the second dam powerhouse, dredge fill and grading attached the island it to the Washington mainland. From the boat launch, sterile rip-rap lines the bank downstream from the now flooded Cascade Rapids. A few rickety and wobbly wood slat fishing piers jut out over the river, remnants of tribal treaty fishing rights.

Paddling downstream with the current is relaxed, except for wind gusts blowing up river. High basalt formations trimmed with evergreen Douglas Firs line the wide Columbia River as we paddle down from our put-in. Though wary and on the look out for barges pushing tugs in either direction, the only boats we encounter the first stretch are hopeful sturgeon and steelhead fishers casting their lines as they bob in the current. Intense fishers rarely smile or wave in return to our greetings as we glide past.

A frequent singing "eeek" of an osprey soaring above breaks up the constant rush of the moving river and wind. Every human made high point within sight, from rotted wharf pilings to sturdy river navigation signals are topped with huge tangled masses of sticks: ospreys’ nests. I muse if ospreys have lost the skill of building nests in natural habitat. Sometimes four nests are within a few hundred feet, surprisingly close for this wide winged, black and white raptor. Ospreys dive into the current, coming up with their prize, a fish latched by their talons as they fly away. In a tight grip, the fish points forward, perpendicular under the osprey belly, looking like a pontoon below a winged craft.

At the end of day one, we pull into Beacon Rock State Park, tucked into a cove hidden from the main channel by the enormous volcanic Beacon Rock, ready to find a camping space close to the shoreline. None. As the sky darkens, and drops of rain add to our dampness, we have no intention of paddling further. We pitch our tent on a soft grassy area, not an official camping space, deciding that our excuse to the ranger who is likely to show up, is that we are too tired to go on and what else is a kayaker to do? Sure enough, after a rainy night, a ranger walks up in the overcast morning. She gives us the obligatory four sentence lecture on park rules, “camping only in official locations,” but kindly understands that there was no other space for weary kayakers and collects the regular $19 camping fee. Snug in our tent with crossword puzzles and books, we pass the morning under pouring rain. Perhaps this was the type of morning that Meriwether Lewis was able to write in his journal.

By late afternoon the rain stops and sun begins to peek through cloudy skies as we point the bow downstream towards our next camping spot, Skamania Island. To our left on the Oregon side, waterfalls cascade down cliffs, sunlight fractured in the spray. We had been so confident that we knew the Columbia well, that our map is only a simple sketch rather than a chart and we don’t have a GPS. We disagree on whether we are looking downriver at Multnomah Falls or another cascade, but the majesty of Crown Point on the Washington side, leaves no doubt where we are.

Our camp ground on Skamania Island is a sandy beach just above high tide line; dense cottonwoods block our way inland. We have the island to ourselves, except for geese and mergansers, and a raccoon who left hand prints in the sand throughout the campsite.
The next day is also leisurely as we eat breakfast, break camp, load up to head downstream again, keeping to the Washington shoreline for close up views of Cape Horn. The sheer towering basalt cliffs, sprinkled with shoots of hardy green vegetation, are awesome in their straight steepness soaring up from some deep underwater base. The water against the basalt is glassy smooth as we silently float along the edge of the towering rock face. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail tracks parallel the Columbia on the north side; Union Pacific on the south. We are surprised at the frequent number of freight trains that click and clack along the tracks. At Cape Horn workers long ago blasted a long tunnel through the rocks. Sun light shining through a moving cloud cover flits along the cliffs turning the south shore into a rusty shade and the northern shore into darker shadows. After Cape Horn we aim towards low lying Reed Island, our destination for the night.

Circling Reed Island we pass campers with fast, loud ski boats beached on a sandy bank. Pink, sunburned children splash on the shoreline, and shirtless, large bellied men stand knee deep keeping a parental eye on them. We’re greeted with friendly waves and calls that there is space to camp, but desiring solitude we wave back and keep paddling. On the western tip of the island we find an overgrown Washington State camp ground. A plaque commemorates the Reed family who with their livestock homesteaded the island till a major flood before Bonneville Dam was built, wiped out their farm. Tall grasses hide picnic tables and fire rings, stinging nettles zing our legs and arms as we trounce through the area before we pick a spot close to the eroded shoreline. A sand free cooking surface on a picnic table brings the pleasure of hot, non gritty food. Sitting in our low slung camp chairs atop the embankment, we enjoy a glass of wine, looking out over a rosy sunset. At sun set, mosquitoes buzz hungrily, so we climb into our cozy tent for a calm sleep.

Our final kayaking day is warm and sunny. We cross the main channel from the Washington side towards the Oregon shore. Our stable kayak rocks with the waves as we quickly paddle cross current to clear the shipping channel. In and out of low lying Greg and Flag Islands, we slide close to the willow and cotton wooded shore watching for song birds and mammals. An otter slips into the water and expertly swims along the shore finally eluding us when it dives under a gnarly rooted downed tree. Past Flag Island and out into the main stream of the Columbia we head towards the confluence of the Sandy River. The Sandy River spreads gently into the Columbia after flowing down a wide, flat reach. The mouth of the Sandy is marked with huge downed trees, and constantly shifting sand bars giving us an up close understanding of why Lewis and Clark called it the Quick Sand River. Paddling with strong strokes against the Sandy’s current, past wide sand bars and eroded shore lines we feel like adventurous Lewis and Clark, not exactly sure where we are going. The major difference, of course, between our float and the explorers of 200 years ago, are the pylons and high tension wires strung overhead across the river, marching from Columbia dams towards Portland to serve the electricity hungry cities.

On the shore a dejected looking man sits on the bank staring into the water. Something about his sadness floats across the water. We paddle towards him and chat for awhile. Out of work, hitch hiking cross country, he says he’s been camping in the shore grasses. Guardedly assured that his stares into the water are contemplation, not a death wish, we allow the down stream current to take us away. Back-paddling a few strokes and the bow reverses direction, pointing back to where the Sandy flows into the Columbia.

At the wide slow moving river’s mouth we turn westward again along the Oregon shore of the Columbia. A working dry dock and rusty, grounded barges line up along thick wood plank wharves. One barge looks like a giant, flat bottom planter with wild bushes and flowers sprouting in soil that has been deposited in the hull over time by decaying plants and eastern winds. A slick modern yacht sits in a small dry dock, its name Royale Casino painted on the stern. These scenes and the loud zoom and spray of ski boats as we float closer to our pull out at Chinook Landing lets us know that we’ve reached the urban area. Our yellow kayak bow plows through the ski boat wakes, towards the triple wide boat ramp. We pull our kayak out between the zoom and exhaust of dozens of motor boats idling at the boat launch, sure that none of the Corps of Discovery members would have imagined this when they paddled the Columbia.